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McCarthy finds stroke at Cincinnati in 10-7 win

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Thomas McCarthy had a career-high four hits in UK's win over Cincinnati. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Thomas McCarthy had a career-high four hits in UK's win over Cincinnati. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
CINCINNATI, Ohio - Kentucky third baseman Thomas McCarthy had been scuffling at the plate. He was hitting just .240 coming into a game against Cincinnati. Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson says McCarthy was just having bad luck.

"It's just the way the game goes sometimes," said Henderson. "Guys hit the ball and it gets caught, and he crushed the ball to centerfield today and it wasn't caught. Then he came through with three hard-hit ground balls that got through and they were hit well. And I attribute that to relaxing and swinging at strikes."

McCarthy hit .371 (.411 in conference) last season, earning first-team SEC honors at third base, the first Wildcat to win that honor since 1972. Last season, he started off a bit slow in the non-conference schedule before going on a tear against SEC opponents. 

Wednesday, things felt different.

"Today felt good," said McCarthy. "I felt like I could finally relax in the box, and saw some pitches, and kind of worked the middle. I mean, that's where three of my hits came from, I think. And I just felt a lot more comfortable in the box today.

If Wednesday's game against UC is any indication, it would seem that McCarthy is finding his stroke again, just in time for play in the nation's toughest conference. 

McCarthy recorded a career-high four hits, including a double and 2 RBI as he led Kentucky (22-0, 3-0) to a 10-7 victory to extend the team's winning streak to 22 to begin the season. 

The commander of the hot corner got things going early with a scorching line drive to right-center field. It looked like the center fielder may cut McCarthy's luck short yet again. But the ball glanced off the glove of Jake Proctor and McCarthy cruised into second with an RBI double to give  Kentucky an early 3-0 lead. 

"Yeah, I know I put a good swing on it," said McCarthy. "And I was just running. Once I saw it down, I felt like I finally caught a break this season."

Across the diamond from McCarthy was Luke Maile. Manning first base for the evening instead of his natural position behind the dish, Maile got the scoring started for UK. He singled to left, fighting off a tough pitch into shallow left fielld, scoring Austin Cousino to put UK up 1-0.  

Playing in front of family in friends from just across the river in Northern Kentucky where Maile played high school ball at Covington Catholic, it was evident that he was comfortable coming back home. In fact, in his second at bat, just as he did in his last visit to Marge Schott Field, Maile sent a towering blast over the 365 sign in left-center field to give UK a 3-0 lead. It was Maile's second of three hits on the day, as he reached base in all six plate appearances with 2 RBI. 

"Yeah, it must be something about the five-one-three (area code)," said Maile of playing at UC. "I've been seeing the ball well lately. I've been able to put some good swings on pitches, and I was fortunate they left a couple of pitches out over the zone for me tonight, and I put a couple good swings on 'em."

It was not all offense for the Wildcats. They got a strong pitching performance out of their starter in right-handed freshman Chandler Shepherd. He found some bad luck in the first inning as two Bearcats reached on infield base hits. Despite the bad luck, he settled down and retired the side without surrendering a run.

Then he sat down 15 consecutive Beartcats batters stretching from the end of the first inning to the sixth. 

Going into the sixth inning, Shepherd had allowed just two hits and had not walked a batter. Shepherd lasted just 5.2 innings however, good for the longest start of his career, as he gave up three hits in the sixth and two runs. He was lifted in favor of Walt Wijas, but it was Shepherd's best start of the season.

"I liked a lot of things out of him," said Henderson. "Really pleased with his outing. I thought he controlled his body out on the mound. I thought he made really good adjustments... A really good outing for Chandler Shepherd, especially being on the road."

After a huge weekend out of the bullpen against South Carolina, where the bullpen did not allow a run in 10.2 innings of work, Wijas and Tim Peterson struggled. And though Kentucky had mounted a 7-0 lead, the margin shrunk quickly as the normally dependable duo faltered in the seventh and eighth innings. Wijas and Peterson each threw just two-thirds of an inning allowing two-runs a piece. Cincinnati cut the lead to 7-6.

Enter Alex Phillips.

The senior southpaw came in with a 2-0 count in the eighth inning and no outs. He promptly struck out the first two batters and earned a ground out to thwart the Bearcat momentum and preserve the victory for Shepherd. He also came to the aid of his fellow bullpen arms in a clutch situation.

"Well he's huge," Henderson said of his reliever. "The whole game changed when he came in. You bring a guy in 2-0 and he gets a punch out. And we went from, you know that, that awkward certain feeling that you have in baseball, to bringing in a guy who punches out the first two guys, and all of a sudden the momentum is right back in our dugout."

In the ninth, Kentucky added two insurance runs. The hot hitting Cameron Flynn drove in an RBI with a single, and then McCarthy capped off his four-hit day with an RBI single of his own to give Kentucky their tenth run of the day.

Phillips went the rest of the way, earning his first save of the season and giving Kentucky a 10-7 win over Cincinnati. The win was good for their 22nd straight to start the season, just one shy of the all-time SEC record of 23. They will continue their pursuit of perfection in Knoxville this weekend as the Cats travel to face the Tennessee Volunteers (11-8, 4-2). 

While the win streak may not mean much to these Wildcats, winning itself is still the goal. With McCarthy and Maile in the middle of the lineup and plenty of other contributions along the way, there is no doubt this team is enjoying it. 

"It's a fun thing, man," said McCarthy. "I mean we're all just having a lot of fun together, it's fun to come to the yard every day. And hopefully we can just keep this momentum and keep going into Friday."

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